The Awami Workers Party (AWP) has rejected the government’s economic relief package to deal with the coronavirus crisis impact on working class, as it is insufficient to address the enormity of the challenge facing the country today.

ISLAMABAD: The Awami Workers Party (AWP) has rejected the government’s economic relief package to deal with the coronavirus crisis impact on working class, as it is insufficient to address the enormity of the challenge facing the country today.

In a joint statement issued on Wednesday, the AWP President Yousuf Mustikhan, general secretary Akhtar Hussain, deputy secretary Ismat Shahjehan, Sindh chapter president Dr Bakhshal Thalhu, KP president Haider Zaman and Punjab President Ammar Rashid said an increase in the Benazir Income Support Program (BISP) stipend for regular beneficiaries from Rs2,000 to Rs3,000 a month, and emergency relief payments of Rs12,000 to 10 million households is a joke with the poor.

The working class households need more than a one-off payment of Rs12,000, and a comprehensive economic relief and the stimulus package must take into account both the immediate needs of the most vulnerable and long-term transformation of Pakistan’s political economy to serve working people, they said.

“AWP believes the scale of this crisis, in which 12-15 million workers are likely to lose their livelihoods, requires a response on the same scale,” the statement read.

The AWP leaders have demanded a basic income payment of Rs20,000 to the poorest 15 million households for a guaranteed period of three months to enable workers in these families to stay at home to protect themselves and those around them from the virus and afford basic necessities at the same time.

The fiscal space required to finance this will have to be created by cutting down on non-productive expenditures from other organisations and departments, including non-combat defence expenditures. The AWP leaders called for immediate simple redistributive measures including a 10-20% cut in all officer salaries of Grade-19 and above, with greater cuts for the highest grades.

Further, money for this should be diverted from all major infrastructure projects except public health, which should be the main national priority right now.

The economic package offers Rs100 billion in relief to industry and exporters without specifying any conditions for the use of this money. AWP believes that any bailout for industrialists and exporters must be linked with paid leave for all permanent and contractual workers for the period of this crisis, to ensure workers are not pushed into unemployment and further deprivation.

All textile and garment workers who have been laid off from factories must be reinstated immediately with the government assuming responsibility for half of the wage bill of all factory workers.

Workers incomes and health must be at the core of any deal made with industrialists or exporters.

Instead of layoffs at factories, we must divert resources from luxury and non-essential items to essential production of medical and personal protective equipment needed by the health response, which can also help keep workers employed in this crisis, while taking strict measures to ensure their health and protection.

More generally, the AWP leaders emphasised that definition of ‘workers’ to be protected, must include undocumented labour forms such as domestic workers, self-employed vendors, seasonal wage labourers in the agricultural sector, and migrant workers.

The government’s relief plan offers some vague measures with regards to identifying ‘informal sector’ workers and disguised unemployment which needs a massive exercise of identifying and documenting workers in all of their forms. This will serve both the immediate purpose of transferring cash to the most in need, as well as document the labour force and create a resource for future labour policies. If done effectively, this crisis could be a significant way to strengthen Pakistan’s public services and safety nets.

In the short-term, the government can demonstrate its commitment by reaching out to all documented small and medium enterprises (SMEs) to enable them to continue to stay afloat in the medium term.

AWP believes that the interest rate should be brought down by a further 300 bps and the State Bank must regulate banks and inject liquidity to ensure affordable credit to SMEs.

AWP leaders also called for the cancellation of payments of all utility bills below 500 units for the next two months to ensure people do not have their utilities cut in the emergency period.

The AWP also demanded nationalisation of power generation projects to bring down posts as the capacity payments of Independent Power Producers (IPPs) have crippled the government’s fiscal capacity.

This crisis represents an opportunity to undertake a serious debate about the social contract in to-to.

As a global economic recession kicks in due to restrictions on movement and productive activity, we must reconceptualise the ‘national security’ orientation of the state and acknowledge that the countries which have dealt most effectively with pandemic boast the world’s best public health and education infrastructures (Singapore, China, South Korea).

Pakistan’s health-to-GDP ratio is one of the lowest in the world. We must increase our investment, in the hundreds of billions, in health workers, hospitals, testing systems, ventilators, intensive care units, disease surveillance systems, rapid response teams and other critical areas of our health structure.

The AWP leaders also demanded that the government should coordinate with private voluntary efforts that have sprouted in recent days to assist vulnerable segments in the distribution of the relief.

The AWP supports any effort to undertake serious negotiation with international donors for debt relief and restructuring ، including write-off of loans acquired by military dictatorships، to ensure Pakistan poor countries can effectively create the fiscal space required to address this monumental crisis and protect the lives of its people.

Issued by: Information secretary AWP